July 5, 2005

FIRST ORDER...A BURGER (via M Ali Choudhury):

Cognitive Disconnect (Sandy Szwarc, 11/30/04, Tech Central Station)

In the 1940s when he realized that starvation "was going to be a huge problem" in war-torn countries, [Ancel Benjamin Keys, PhD.] led the first scientific studies of calorie restrictions, at the University of Minnesota. Their study was known as the Minnesota Starvation Study and the results were published in the legendary two-volume, Biology of Human Starvation. Decades later, it is still the definitive work on the subject. "I doubt another of its kind will ever be done," he said. Today, there are rights for human research subjects and it would be seen as too cruel and life-threatening.

Young male volunteers, all carefully selected for being especially psychologically and socially well-adjusted, good-humored, motivated, active and healthy, were put on diets meant to mimic what starving Europeans were enduring, of about 1,600 calorie/day -- but which included lots of fresh vegetables, complex carbohydrates and lean meats. The calories were more than many weight loss diets prescribe and precisely what's considered "conservative" treatment for obesity today. What they were actually studying, of course, was dieting -- our bodies can't tell the difference if they're being starved voluntarily or involuntarily! Dr. Keys and colleagues then painstakingly chronicled how the men did during the 6 months of dieting and for up to a year afterwards, scientifically defining "the starvation syndrome."

As the men lost weight, their physical endurance dropped by half, their strength about 10%, and their reflexes became sluggish -- with the men initially the most fit showing the greatest deterioration, according to Keys. The men's resting metabolic rates declined by 40%, their heart volume shrank about 20%, their pulses slowed and their body temperatures dropped. They complained of feeling cold, tired and hungry; having trouble concentrating; of impaired judgment and comprehension; dizzy spells; visual disturbances; ringing in their ears; tingling and numbing of their extremities; stomach aches, body aches and headaches; trouble sleeping; hair thinning; and their skin growing dry and thin. Their sexual function and testes size were reduced and they lost all interest in sex. They had every physical indication of accelerated aging.

But the psychological changes that were brought on by dieting, even among these robust men with only moderate calorie restrictions, were profound. So much so that Keys called it "semistarvation neurosis." The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed. A few even mutilated themselves, one chopping off three fingers in stress. They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; began hoarding things; consumed vast amounts of coffee and tea; and chewed gum incessantly (as many as 40 packages a day). Binge eating episodes also became a problem as some of the men were unable to continue to restrict their eating.

Many of these traits are familiar with those who've spent their lives dieting. In fact, many of the symptoms once thought to be primary features of anorexia nervosa are actually symptoms of starvation and restrictive eating, said David M. Garner, PhD., director of River Centre Clinic in Sylvania, Ohio. Indeed, Keys' research indicates that the frenzied attack on fatness may have had the grave side effect of leading to increased incidences of eating disorders.

The extreme physical and mental effects Keys observed led to his famous quote: "Starved people cannot be taught democracy. To talk about the will of the people when you aren't feeding them is perfect hogwash."

Well, it does explain what happened to Europe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 5, 2005 7:59 PM

Our obesity ... though overstated ... has its own pathologies.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 5, 2005 8:42 PM

1,600 kcalories a day is not starvation, unless you're a rather large man.

Many women in America, and men and women worldwide, do perfectly well on around that many kcalories.

My own experiences, and similar ones of people close to me, directly contradict the published list of physical and psychological effects supposedly experienced by the study participants.
Further, a Canadian study of Canadian WW II POWs held by Germany, who had experienced some low level of food deprivation, found that the POWs actually performed better on tests of physical fitness just after the war than they did before being captured.

However, IIRC, the Minnesota Starvation Study included some subjects with much more severe restrictions than 1,600 kcalories a day, and the list of afflictions is probably actually attributable to those poor souls, some of whom suffered permanent damage to their internal organs.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at July 6, 2005 7:41 AM

Michael -

Sure it is - according to how one defines starvation.

The average (5'8" - 175 lbs) twenty something male burns between 2500 to 3000 calories a day without exercising. 1600 calorie/day diet leaves a huge energy deficit.

That's fine for someone with fat to drop but for someone with a low body fat percentage a calorie deficit that large is seriously detrimental to health over a long period of time. From personal experience I can say that a calorie deficient diet is certainly detrimental to athletic development.

Posted by: Shelton at July 6, 2005 12:16 PM

The lightest I've ever been at my adult height of 5'10" was a bit shy of 140 (this was 20 years and 30 pounds ago.) I was doing Pritikin at the time, running 6 or 7 miles a day, and working at a Greyhound bus station. So I'm standing behind the counter at about 12:30 a.m. waiting for the late Vermont Transit bus down from Quebec, station is empty, floors are done, looking across at the vending machines, nothing in a particular on my mind ... next thing I know I've got a roll of quarters in my hand & am leaping over the counter. Came back with eleven Snickers bars and ate them crouched down behind the freight scale so nobody could see me. After that I decided I was hungry, so I locked up and went across the street for a light snack of a 12-inch meatball sub and a half gallon of milk. Hunger does funny things to your head.

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 6, 2005 6:29 PM